Build Your Own Computer Part 2: Understanding the Options

You want to build your own computer, right? Of course you do. By now, I’m certain that you’ve read Part 1: The Basics. If you know what the parts of a computer are, you probably skipped it. The main point I want to recapitulate is that this article was written in March 2011. [UPDATED: current as of July 2011.]  In this business, you’ve got to use recent sources.

Previously, we looked at what components go into building a PC. Now we’re going to go over that list another time, but in detail. Our goal here is to understand the options available to us when it comes time to pick out parts and make a budget.

Understand the Parts

Some might argue that we should decide on a budget before looking at the options available to us. But this is a chicken-or-egg issue. If we try to set a budget without knowing the hardware options, we’re liable to either say “I want the best computer possible for 600 bucks” or “I want the cheapest possible computer that can do x, y, and z.” That is not the approach of the informed, saavy, self-computer-building, swashbuckling, egg-frying, chicken-eating, fancy-car-driving … um, well, I don’t know where that was going, but we ain’t doing things the dumb way. Once we know our options, we can figure out exactly how much we’re willing to spend where. Ballpark:

  • $400 — nice, entry-level machine.
  • $600 — up to date, can play, say, Starcraft II.
  • $800 — very nice, can probably play just about all modern games.
  • $1000 — ditto, but may have nice things like a solid state HD or extra monitor.

Anyway, here is what you need to know. As before, we’re starting with the toughest stuff and working our way to the easiest from there.

Basic Question 1: Intel or AMD?

There are pretty much two makers of CPUs (processors). Within each company, there are also different types of “sockets” out there. A motherboard will be one particular type of socket. It will only support processors of that socket type.

The upshot is that both companies make good processors and you will not fail miserably by choosing one or the other. You just need to be aware that this decision will determine much of your computer’s hardware now and in the future, if you want to upgrade. Now on to the parts themselves.

Motherboard

This is the tough one, right off the bat. Motherboards have to plug into just about every other component, so you have to be sure they’re compatible with everything. There’s lots of options.

So where do we start? We start with The Important Parts of a Motherboard. (There aren’t too many!) You can probably find diagrams and pictures all over the web, but right now we’re interested in abstracts, not where to find each part on a schematic.

  • CPU socket. This is where the processor will plug in. It will be a particular type of socket and will only support certain CPUs. For Intel, you’ll likely be looking for a motherboard with a socket LGA 1155. I’m not well versed on what Intel is doing with their different sockets; you’ll need to do some research to see what the best choice will be. For AMD, things are easier: right now, you want socket AM3. But you can also look for socket AM3+ motherboards, which support the current generation of processors as well as those expected to come out later this year.
  • RAM slots. This is where you plug in RAM. Motherboards could have only 2 of these, or 8 or more. RAM nowadays is most commonly found in 2-gig and 4-gig sticks. But check the motherboard specifications to see how much total RAM it supports!
  • PCI-Express ports. These are where you’ll plug big-time add-ons. For most, that means graphics cards. It might include sound cards and other stuff, but these might be on regular PCI slots instead. Modern motherboards probably have one or two PCI-express slots and a couple PCI slots, which should be enough for most of us.
  • Other standard ports. Examples are SATA (and IDE) ports for hard drives and/or DVD drives, and PCI slots, where some types of cards will plug in. If you have special needs in these categories, check up on them, but if not, pretty much any standard motherboard will be probably fine. You can double-check on these after picking the board.
  • Onboard features. These are things that are also available as add-ons, but come standard on many motherboards. Examples include USB ports, LAN support (i.e. an ethernet port), onboard sound, and onboard graphics. Most of your options will have all of these features.

I know, information overload. There’s a lot here to process. But keep the goal in sight: to figure out what we need from our motherboard and what different performance/price options are available. So what do we do? We make another bulleted list:

  • Choose the motherboard AFTER you’ve chosen the processor and RAM. Those two will determine the basic type of motherboard you’re going for. Make sure to narrow your motherboard choices to those compatible with your processor and RAM.
  • Figure out your current needs and plans for an upgrade. If you’re only getting 4 gigs of RAM now but want to someday up it to 16, you need at least 4 RAM slots, not just 2. If you want to be able to run two graphics cards now or later, you need a motherboard that supports it. Of course, more slots will cost you more, but from what I’ve seen, it won’t be a huge difference.
  • After picking based on the above, check the integrated features, like sound, graphics, and LAN, to make sure you’ve got what you want.
  • Finally, check the little things, like SATA ports for your hard drive and DVD drive, before you put in the order! Make sure you have connectors for your other hardware.

Budget: $70-175 ballpark. How good your motherboard needs to be will be determined by your other choices. Better RAM and processors will require better motherboards.

Processor

As I mentioned above, your choices are between AMD and Intel. But before we discuss specific models, let’s look at the numbers to consider in a processor:

  • Number of cores. A core is one self-contained processor. It does calculations or computations. Processors nowadays have multiple cores, so they can do multiple things at once. You’ll have a choice of two to six or more cores. Generally, more cores means better multitasking and better at running complex applications — but only if those applications are designed to take advantage of many-core systems. For most, diminishing returns set in soon — around 3 or 4 cores. Modern games, for example, often don’t take advantage of more than three cores.
  • Clock speed. This is the rate at which things get done in each core of a processor. For some intense applications, like games, this is often a more important measure than the number of cores. For more multitasking apps, more cores are probably more useful. Anyway, a minimum for clock speed in desktops nowadays is 2.5 GHz, and something more like 3+ will be useful. If you’re into overclocking, take that into account too; some CPUs are better at it than others. However, don’t compare two processors just on clock speed, because they use different instruction pipelines and other complicated stuff. Instead, check out benchmarks (tests of the processors running tough tasks) on sites like tomshardware.
  • Cache. The cache on a processor is like a very small, more intense version of RAM. The cache consists of data stored right up next to the processor, so it can be accessed extremely quickly. Thus, having more cache can make a big difference in how fast a processor runs in some cases. Cache amounts can differ from one or two MB up to 12 or more. There are also different levels of cache, which I won’t get into but you can look up if you’re interested.

Intel processors currently include the, entry-level Core i3, the more intense Core i5, and the super-intense Core i7. Each of these comes in several flavors/levels of ability. AMD has the Athlon II line as a more budget/entry-level set and the Phenom II line for more performance. Again, the choice you make here will determine your choice of motherboard to some extent. There are more nuances which you can research more later on.

Budget: $60-$350. For AMD, this range is more like $60-$200; Intel, maybe $120-$350.

Hard Drive

There’s not too much complexity here. If you have the money, you may want to consider a solid-state drive  in addition to a hard disk for some or all of your data. We’re talking about $200 for 100 GB (ballpark figure), compared to around $60 for a terabyte-sized hard disk drive. But solid-state drives have much, much faster response times, so any reading or writing of data to those disks will happen much faster. On the other hand, they certainly aren’t necessary for most users.

For a regular hard disk drive, here are the stats that matter:

  • Capacity. If you have lots of multimedia, there’s no reason to get less than a terabyte. In general, you might as well get 512 GB or a TB, even if you don’t think you’ll need it.
  • Spindle Speed. How fast the disk spins, for example 7200rpm for standard middle-end models. This gives an idea of how fast it will respond. It’s probably not worth it to spend $10 less for 5400rpm, but that’s your call.
  • Data transfer rate. More is obviously better, to make responses to reading from disk faster. But odds are you won’t really notice the difference on these, or, if you would, you probably would rather have a solid state drive anyway….
  • Seek time, Average latency. More measures on how fast the drive is at accessing your data. Again, if you really care, consider an SSD.

Bottom line? You’ll probably get a standard, 7200 rpm, 1 TB hard disk drive. But check around to see what brands are good/trusted.

Oh, by the way. Hard drives fail. This is not a myth, this is a fact. Get an external hard drive of at least the same size to back up your data. If you don’t have one, plan it into your budget. Backing up your computer is not hard even (especially) on Linux. On Mac, there’s Time Machine, and Windows doesn’t need backups because it never crashes. Just kidding, Windows 7 has a backup system.

Budget: $50-$140 unless you want a solid state or something particularly fast. Double that, give or take, to get an external for backups.

RAM

RAM is a pretty important part of the system, and is quite cheap nowadays. Even better, it’s probably the easiest to upgrade, simply by getting another stick or two.

First of all, you’ll definitely be using DDR3 RAM. DDR2 is the previous generation, but it’s basically gone. Pretty much all motherboards you can find will support DDR3, not DDR2 (but checking to make sure is good).

Here are the important numbers to look at with RAM:

  • Capacity per stick. Usually you’ll get two 2GB sticks for 4 gigs of RAM total, or two 4GB sticks for 8 gigabytes total.
  • Total capacity. Again, you probably want 4-8 GB. It is easy to add more RAM later.
  • Data rate. This is the number they put in the name of the product without telling you what it means. Example: DDR3 SDRAM 1333 Model #xxxxxyyyyy. The 1333 is what we’re looking at. The other speeds are generally something like 1066, 1600, 1866. Lower-end motherboards may only support up to a certain speed, but you’re unlikely to actually notice a big difference between any of these.

That’s about it, besides remembering to look for Desktop Model RAM, not something made for laptops or specific systems.

Budget: $40-$100. You can get 4 gigs of nice DDR3 on the low end of this range, but again, look for a good brand.

Video Card

If you’re looking to play games or need good graphics, this will be an important additional component of your system. Look for an up-to-date review or ranking of the latest cards — such a discussion is way out of this post’s scope. In general, your choices are ATI Radeon or Nvidia GeForce cards. If you want to be able to play the most intense graphics games coming out in a year or two from now at high resolution, you’ll need a very high-end card or dual cards. For most games already out today, a $120ish card will do decently well at standard resolutions.

Remember that graphics cards plug in to PCI-Express ports on the motherboard; in fact, they generally require a specific type of PCI-Express port. That’s usually PCI-Express 2.0 at a speed of x16. After picking your graphics card, you’ll want to ensure you choose a motherboard that supports it. Dual graphics cards have stricter motherboard requirements.

Budget: $50 – $350. A card in the $150 range is probably enough for most gamers, and cards under $100 still deliver great performance. But in six months or a year, your $150 card may need replacement. Also, the bigger your resolution and monitor, the better your card needs to be.

Power Supply

Figuring out what power supply to get is important. If your PSU is insufficient, your system won’t run or will shut down under peak stress. So when in doubt, get a higher-powered PSU. It’s also advisable here to get a high-quality brand, since there’s no guarantee a cheap PSU will work up to the specs it claims to.

Also, like the motherboard, your needs here will be mainly determined by the rest of your system, so you’ll be choosing this toward the end. It needs to provide enough power, and it needs to have enough power plugs for your different hardware (but that should be a given). In general, here are the specifications you need to look for:

  • Wattage. There are various wattage calculators on the web to help determine, given the components of your system, how many watts it will draw. A normal system with no video card or add-ons will probably draw well under 300 watts. But adding a high-end graphics card adds at least 150 watts to this number. If you’ll be using a graphics card, you need at least a 500 watt PSU. My advice: figure out the maximum you’ll draw, add 100, and round up. Better safe than sorry in this department, and it’s hard to figure out exactly what you need.
  • Wattage part 2. Look for “continuous” power output, not just “maximum” or “peak.” Also look for efficiency (like “Rated 80+”.)
  • Amperage on the 12-volt rail. The what? It’s simple. Different components of your system run at different voltages, and so your PSU has several “rails” providing different voltage amounts. The most intense components of your system all run on the 12-volt rail: processor, hard drive, DVD drive, graphics card. So having enough watts isn’t enough; you need to find out your requirements here and then be sure you meet them. But again, if you get a good power supply from a good brand with plenty of watts to spare, you should be fine.

Budget: $40 – $120ish. You can get a good 400 watt PSU at the low end of this range and a good 800+ watt PSU at the high end. Again, do some research on which brands are reliable (a google search will do it) and pick a good one.

DVD burner

Ok, this one should be easy. Preferably, get a drive that connects with SATA, not IDE. IDE is old.

If you are into Blu-Ray, you can also opt for a Blu-Ray drive. These seem to be about $60-70 for a drive, and maybe around $100 for a burner.

Budget: $20-$40.  ($100 to support Blu-Ray as well.)

Case (Tower)

The case is the most important part of the system, because it is how your non-tech friends will judge your computer. If you get a case with blinking LED lights and fans, they’ll think, “Wow, what a legit setup!” If you get a hand-me-down Windows 98 drab box, they’ll think your computer must suck.

But ignoring that paragraph, people will fall into two types here:

  • Entry-level: Any reasonable case will do. I’m not running a super-intense processor or video card, so cooling/airflow isn’t an issue. If this is you, get a reasonable, entry-level case.
  • Enthusiast-level. I am running a graphics card and I might be overclocking and I need decent cooling in my system. If this is you, look for cases that are advertised as gaming or performance towers and that have at least two fans and “good airflow”. As usual, if a component is important to you, do some research on figuring out exactly what you need.

There are also different types of cases. This is important because not every motherboard or power supply works with every case. In general, though, they actually do, as long as you get ATX or micro-ATX.

Budget: $20-$100. Note that many of them come with Power Supply Units, so you may be looking to get both at once, or get them separately. Probably one that comes with a PSU, comes with a crappy PSU, so separate is usually better.

Keyboard/Mouse/Monitor

Hopefully you are scrounging these parts from your previous computer. If not, I have no particular advice. For a nice LCD monitor, you could easily spend $100-200 or more, but you could also probably get an older one for cheap.

Budget: $120+ if you’re buying new.  Keyboard: $10+. Mouse: $10+. Monitor: ? About $100 for a standard (nice) LCD screen.

Speakers/Videocam/Mic

Again, possible scrounged parts. Not saying that you’ll definitely want a webcam or microphone, but you may. Speakers will vary widely in cost and quality.

Budget: $20-60+; $40 will do fine for most. Speakers: $5 – $100 depending what you want, but $20 is probably fine for a standard set. Webcam $20+ depending what you’re looking for, but you probably want one with a microphone built-in.

Operating System

Windows, Mac, Linux. You probably already know what you want. If it’s Windows, it’s cheaper to install an old version of Windows from your previous computer and then get an upgrade to Windows 7 disc ($15 student edition!). In fact, if you have said upgrade disc, I’ve heard that one can simply use it to install a trial version of Windows 7, then immediately use it again to upgrade that to full Windows 7. Nobody would actually do this, since it’s immoral, but it makes for interesting conversation. Anyway…. If you’re getting a version of Linux, just download it and burn it to disc, then install from there. If you’re buying your OS, you’ll get an install disc.

Budget: $0 – $120.

Screws/Miscellaneous

Yeah, you may have to buy some screws unless enough of them came with your case. Same for motherboard spacers. Plan on having it as an expense. Plus, you may need something else along the way: a wire here, a converter there. Finally, you need to buy a screwdriver unless you already happen to own one.

Budget: $10-$30.

Budget and Select Parts

OK, now we have a good idea of what the options are and what they’ll cost us. The next step is to take a look at what we have available to spend and what we want out of our PC. We will do these in Part 3.

But we’re halfway home. Now we have a basis for comparison: a framework for thinking about our options. This will make selecting a lot easier.

Youtube link of the day: I miss the playgrounds and the animals and digging up worms.

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